Rahul’s success like an entire exam aced | Cricket

Stories like being called upon to play five minutes before the match against Pakistan add to the intrigue but if you parse through the media interactions and the interviews in the buildup to the Asia Cup, KL Rahul’s spot in India’s first eleven was never under any threat.

India's KL Rahul plays a shot during the Super 4s match against Sri Lanka(BCCI Twitter)PREMIUM
India’s KL Rahul plays a shot during the Super 4s match against Sri Lanka(BCCI Twitter)

It was always a matter of when, not how. The job description was key though, because as irrefutable as Rahul’s middle-overs game may be, his wicketkeeping endurance would have ultimately insulated his spot. And based on the last two matches, it can be safely presumed he is nearly there.

The switch happened quietly during the Pakistan innings, from the seventh over to be exact, when Rahul took over from Ishan Kishan behind the stumps. Rahul isn’t a natural wicketkeeper but he follows the ball, gets in line quickly and backs it with a decent collection. All those attributes were summoned in his quick stumping of Sadeera Samarawickrama on Tuesday, or the way he dived forward to take a one-handed catch off Charith Asalanka. Both wickets came off the bowling of Kuldeep Yadav, who with his left-arm leg breaks, can be a difficult read for wicketkeepers.

“Sometimes, even I can’t pick him up under lights,” said Rahul at a press conference after Tuesday’s win. But that an understanding is slowly brewing between them was apparent when Rahul said: “We talk between overs and set strategy, and then it is up to Kuldeep and his skill.”

Not just that, Rahul was the only person to flag his uncertainty when Rohit Sharma and Kuldeep were adamant Asalanka had been drawn into an outside edge to the India captain at slip. Replays proved Rahul to be right.

The purview of a wicketkeeper extends beyond the usual brief these days. And it’s clear Rahul brings a certain calm to that position. Which automatically makes him the first choice for India, possibly for the World Cup too. His brief has been the same all along.

“Before the injury, I was keeping. It has been quite a while that I have been keeping. Since Rishabh Pant got concussed in 2019, I have donned the gloves. So, it is not something new. The team management had also told me that my role would be to keep and play in the middle order,” he said. “When I was in NCA during recovery, I got a bit of time and I worked on my wicketkeeping.”

Rahul’s World Cup selection despite playing no cricket since May was a consistent theme till he finally got game time at the Asia Cup. But what can’t be ignored is how India were also preparing a fallback option in Kishan who made best use of Rahul’s absence with a strong run in the West Indies before featuring in an inning-salvaging partnership with Hardik Pandya in the league match against Pakistan.

The thinking is clear—Rahul is first-choice and hence he will be pushed to keep wickets too when he is ready; Kishan is the backup should things go wrong. All the pieces of the puzzle, as Gautam Gambhir pointed out during Tuesday’s broadcast, are finally falling into place for India. “If Kishan was in the scheme of things of playing against Australia, then he would have kept wickets for India,” Gambhir said on Star Sports. “But now in the last two games KL Rahul has kept wickets.”

With the discussions largely pivoted on the right person to keep wickets for India, KL Rahul the batter was almost sidestepped. But it has taken Rahul only two matches to remind the world why and how he brings much-needed stability to the middle order. Lacing boundaries through covers, skipping down to Pakistan spinners or slog sweeping them to fine-leg before carefully steering his side against Sri Lanka, these last two innings felt like an entire exam being aced.

“I trusted my preparation for the last three or four months and was confident I could do the job. I was nervy initially, but once I faced a few balls, it was back to normal,” he said.

Tuesday called for a more restrained approach and Rahul almost aced it as well. Almost, because that last-second checked shot off Dinuth Wellalage negated the toil that set up Rahul for another fifty, or more, that in turn could have pushed India towards the par score of 250.

What can’t be doubted though is how on a track like Colombo’s R Premadasa, which is to spin what Johannesburg and Perth are to fast bowling, Rahul’s approach was remarkably effective.

“After the first few balls, I tried to figure out the shots I could play and did not want to go into a shell,” Rahul said. “I wanted to defend and diffuse the pressure at the same time. I still wanted to play my shots, but according to the nature of the pitch.”

It’s this game awareness to walk a tightrope, deciding in split-seconds which balls to leave, defend, nudge around or attack that makes Rahul such an assuring man to have in those critical middle-overs. It’s also pertinent to note how Rahul’s measured response to India’s shifting realities may have quietly opened up new lines of strategy. Should he bat at No 4 from now on, instead of Shreyas Iyer? Or does Pandya become the new No 5, followed by Suryakumar Yadav or Kishan and Ravindra Jadeja? The combinations and permutations are still pretty much alive, but at least India have one less name to worry about.

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